MANDY SHAM- THE NOMADIC PHOTOGRAPHER, JOURNALIST & FOODIE ON A QUEST OF SEARCHING FOR GASTRONOMIC PERFECTION
Through trekking the mountains of Georgia, camping under the starlit panorama in Wadi Rum and experiencing homemade meals in Bogotá, Mandy Sham's writing archives are led by her nomadic travel lust and unmatched food radar.
Our interview with the journalist is a glimpse into her remarkable life
Mandy Sham is not your typical travel photographer. Her wanderlust takes her to beyond-tourist places towards cobbled streets and corner bistros where she captures everyday life through a lens of romantic nostalgia. The soft glow and pastel hues of her images are an unmistakable signature of her visual genius. Her work makes us yearn to visit places we’ve never seen before and taste traditional homemade dishes that we didn’t even know existed.
By incorporating a balance of light and shadows in her shots, Mandy’s photographs portray a world of movement, emotions and beauty. Her visuals take us on a journey from the dunes of African deserts to the cinematic landscapes of the Balkans and the colourful streets of Europe.
Mandy’s interest is photography began after her dad bought her a Nikon J1 camera which she used to capture her experiences in Hong Kong where she spent a summer when she was still at university. For the years that followed she has been building an impressive portfolio on Instagram where her followers know her as peach.punk - a pseudonym that suits the calm colours of her photography and combines the edge she has as a female traveller who journeys off-the-beaten path.
Mandy’s aunt was the first person to spark her passion for exploring new destinations and over the years her love for travelling has only grown. Her solo trips, which she has been taking since her teenage years, have led her to incredible places from the top of mountains in Vietnam to the sun-kissed beaches of the Mediterranean and the food markets of Barcelona.
Based in Toronto, Canada, Mandy is constantly developing her multi-talents as a food lover, technical producer and journalist. As a foodie with an appreciation for culture and all things nomadic, Mandy has her own newsletter called Orenji, where she posts stories about her travels across the globe and invites her readers to virtually accompany her. Follow her on a visit to a teahouse in Asia, cool down with a glass of lemonade under the Caribbean heat and enjoy a homemade nabemono in a Japanese restaurant in the heart of the city.
We spoke to Mandy about her wanderlust and travel experiences as a foodie armed with a camera, a talent for writing and best of all a great appetite.
‘‘(...) Meals are the best when food is a labour of love—something equally meaningful to the one who brought it to life. Often, that happens in someone’s home—like when I had the beautiful opportunity to break fast with a Moroccan family during Ramadan (I met the son while on the plane to Marrakech). The food kept coming, and all of it was divine—the spiced, nutty bastilla most of all.’’
for NOMADSofORIGIN Magazine
NOMADSofORIGIN: You are a journalist by calling and a nomad by heart. How did you get into journalism?
Mandy: Through quite a roundabout, zigzag way. The short story is that I’d gotten an internship at my country’s national broadcaster as a technical producer, working the board on live radio broadcasts and mixing podcasts. My education is the feared “content creator” type — back when that was an aspirational word — but it also allowed me to learn all kinds of things and filter what I liked and didn’t like.
The obvious similarity among all the things I was passionate about was the storytelling — finding all the things that make us different, and finding ways to celebrate those things. Travel only cemented my passion for stories and people. I bounced around different technical and editorial roles at my organization, and eventually began working as a news producer — and reporting when I could, from different parts of the world.
NOMADSofORIGIN: From Sri Lanka to Mumbai and Tanzania, you have travelled to many places off-the-beaten path. What are the most intriguing destinations you have visited that are not on most travellers’ radar?
Mandy: Namibia can be somewhat hard to get to for many — but it is just so eccentric in the best way, with the kind of landscapes I’ve never seen anywhere. The desert is dusty, immensely large, and beautiful. Sometimes towns materialize as if from nothing. Sometimes there are taverns on the side of the highway. People speak a myriad of languages and carry their heritage with them everywhere. It’s got the surrealism of the Atlantic coast, plenty of dunes, and primordial stone towers that arise from the earth.
Another place that’s relatively off the radar — and comes highly recommended — is Georgia. It’s a country widely known for its hospitality, passion for food, and beautiful nature. Georgia is located in the Caucasus, filled with mountains, farms, and vineyards — but the regions differ quite a bit, from the Black Sea in the west to the capital of Tbilisi. Its location straddles east and west, and the most evident way that comes through is in food — nothing tastes like Georgian food, and I mean that in the best way. Food is deeply intertwined with seasonality here, and spiced with everything from marigold flowers to tarragon to blue fenugreek.
‘‘I’ve always being tied to the idea of stories as a very intimate and personal thing—something shared over a dinner table or scribbled in weeks-old snail mail.’’
Mandy Sham for NOMADSofORIGIN Magazine
NOMADSofORIGIN: Exploring the culture of a nation is closely intertwined with getting a taste of the local cuisine. As a foodie and food photographer + writer, what are some of the best meals you have had during your travels?
Mandy: I love this question, but where to even start?! I guess I’d preface this by saying meals are the best when food is a labour of love — something equally meaningful to the one who brought it to life. Often, that happens in someone’s home — like when I had the beautiful opportunity to breakfast with a Moroccan family during Ramadan (I met the son while on the plane to Marrakech). The food kept coming, and all of it was divine — the spiced, nutty bastilla most of all.
In a very different sense, I’ve also had one of the best meals of my life at Leo, in Bogotá, Colombia. The tasting menu explored all the regions of the country — Colombia being the second most biodiverse nation in the world — and corresponded each dish to ingredients from very specific areas. It felt like magical realism on a plate.
I’ll give one last shoutout to an egg waffle stall in Hong Kong, owned by an elderly Chinese couple on the second floor of a housing complex near Kowloon Tong. Egg waffles are ubiquitous in the city — I grew up with them, so there’s a certain nostalgia to getting a fresh one and roaming the streets of Hong Kong (or Canadian shopping malls). This one was special — you never saw the stall without a long line, it opened exclusively at night, and the waffles were doused with peanut butter and sugar.
NOMADSofORIGIN: What is your favourite cuisine?
Mandy: While While it’s hard to name one, I love just about anything that is maximalist, umami, and smoky — like the wok-fried Cantonese dishes of my childhood that impart a liveliness to fresh vegetables and cuts of meat, or the garlicky, bright yet herby dishes of Georgia. I also love the sweet, spicy party you get in your mouth from certain Mexican moles, or robust and fiery Indian and Sri Lankan curries. I also think the fusion of cuisines made by people from various backgrounds, especially in a place like Toronto — where I grew up — is some of the best food out there. One of my favourite restaurants here does a scallop kumquat ceviche, marrying Latin American flavours with Japanese ingredients.
Amber Fort, Rajasthan, India
Wadi Rum, Jordan
NOMADSofORIGIN: Do you have any travel memories you are particularly found of?
Mandy: There are a few that I keep close to me, mostly because they reminded me of how in spite of how big and unattainable the world is, people everywhere are just that — people. One memory I have is meeting a Jordanian couple and a pair of Argentinians by chance at a camp in Wadi Rum — we got along really well, talked about the world and back, and lit up our own campfire of blue flame further out in the desert at night. That was about the only time we were silent that day — laying down on the sand and admiring the stars.
Another story is dinner at a restaurant in Dandong, the Chinese border town facing North Korea. When a Chinese waitress asked our English-speaking trio something we couldn’t understand, the North Korean businessmen at the back of the establishment translated for us, loud and clear in English: “beer!” (Beer is, it appears, a universal language in many parts of the world.)
Experiences that have brought me close to nature are also super special — like trekking up to Thorung La Pass in the Annapurna region, under a wide panorama of stars. Or the time I bush camped in the Namib desert with strangers I’d grown close with in the course of two months. We spent that night cooking oryx and kudu steaks and digging into cups of Namibian wine.
NOMADSofORIGIN: From all the destinations you have visited, which one can you simply not resist going back to and why?
Mandy: Hong Kong will likely hold that space in my heart forever. I’m biased, of course — my parents are from there, and it’s also where I’ve spent brief periods of my life as a child, student, and tourist. I love how the limited space on the island, coupled with many people and many aspirations, create pockets of beautiful subculture and cherished shared histories. There’s a shared reverence for the dai pai dong, open-air food stalls that are quintessentially Hong Kong. You’ll find trendy restaurants tucked into old industrial buildings, and a constant juxtaposition of decay and re-invention. Hiking is ubiquitous on the island. It’s lovely to be surrounded by nature, the sea, and the sprawling energy of the metropolis.
Not everything is good. It’s sad to see the state of political freedoms decline, and things are complicated right now. But I very much still see Hong Kong as a second home, and I will continue to champion all the things that make it great.
‘‘The world is pretty big, and every effort on your part to make it smaller is one of the great joys in life. It doesn’t have to be halfway across the world—it could be the neighbourhood you haven’t yet gotten acquainted with, or a restaurant that cooks a type of cuisine you’ve never tried.’’
Mandy Sham for NOMADSofORIGIN Magazine
NOMADSofORIGIN: Your photography style is truly captivating. The nostalgic hint of your photographs has a vintage feel that shows through almost like a signature. Which photographs of yours are you most proud of?
Mandy: Thank you! It’s funny you mention nostalgia — it definitely runs deep in my work, and I see that reflected in many of my favourite photos. I also like the theme of otherworldliness — not with the aim of alienating a place, but of inserting a bit of magic into what might be considered someone’s everyday. I want to direct my lens at beauty in the world, and the following photos (from India, Jordan, Canada, Namibia, Spain, and Lebanon) give me that peace.
NOMADSofORIGIN: From eating tamales in Oaxaca City, to hopping on a marshrutkas across the Caucasus Mountains and enjoying a coffee on a balcony in Rishikesh overlooking the Himalayas - the stories in your newsletter are a celebration of the vibrant culture of places across the globe and the lifestyle of the locals. Considering how engaging your writing is, how did the idea of starting the newsletter come about and what keeps you inspired to keep working on more travel stories?
Mandy: I’ve always being tied to the idea of stories as a very intimate and personal thing — something shared over a dinner table or scribbled in weeks-old snail mail. I’ve used Instagram as a primary vector for those stories, because it is still very much a personal account that weaves photography into that narrative process (or maybe the other way around — bringing life and intimacy into stills).
As with podcasts, everyone and their mother has got a newsletter now — and I admit it’s something I love about something as lo-fi as email. Popping up in someone’s inbox with a story, read at one’s convenience by people keen on learning something new, feels like the best kind of renaissance.
Sharing adventures and experiences is a thing of life, but throughout the pandemic that has felt especially far away. At a recent brunch, it dawned on me that five of us were sharing stories about our lives — a simple act that hasn’t really taken place for the past two years — and that essence of closeness is something I strive for in my writing. There’s a thread of universality in what I’ve shared in my newsletter, driven by our collective desire to make the world make sense.
Ugab village, Namib Desert
NOMADSofORIGIN: Where would you like to travel to in the future that you have not yet visited?
Mandy: Patagonia has been calling my name for a long time, and I’m hoping to get there in the next couple of years to do a bit of trekking. Central Asia is very high on the list — I’m fascinated by the Turkic and Soviet influence woven into culture, architecture, and food. I’d love to see the steppes up north, and Tajikistan’s beautiful mountains. I’d also like to visit the Yemeni island of Socotra — it’s a place that looks absolutely surreal and beautiful, with dragon’s blood trees—and hundreds of other plants and animals that don’t live anywhere else in the world
NOMADSofORIGIN: How does travelling as a journalist differ to travelling as a tourist?
Mandy: These things work in the same vein as travelling for business versus leisure, but as a journalist I think your sense of place takes on a heightened responsibility — to tell stories that serve the people who share their experiences with you. You’re much more conscious of your time with those who agree to talk, and cautious not to distort that testimony for your own needs. In my view, that’s directly opposed to how exploitative tourism can sometimes be — the privilege of being on a tropical island that, in some or many cases, does all it can to shield you from the harder truths (and the cultural pride and joy, too) of living there.
Those moments of covering a nuanced story — and talking to locals keen on sharing their own lived experiences — have helped me along as a tourist, too. They’ve shaped why I think travel is valuable, and made abundantly clear the responsibility travellers have to respect the places they visit. In the end it is enriching — I find myself gravitating much more naturally to conversations with strangers, and it’s kept my own mind open and curious.
NOMADSofORIGIN: Thank you so much for this interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Mandy: I’d share nothing more than a simple reminder: that the world is pretty big, and every effort on your part to make it smaller is one of the great joys in life. It doesn’t have to be halfway across the world — it could be the neighbourhood you haven’t yet gotten acquainted with, or a restaurant that cooks a type of cuisine you’ve never tried. Creating your own links with a community is an underrated and beautiful thing.
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NOMADSofORIGIN x Mandy Sham
This interview appears in NOMADSofORIGIN Magazine print #05 The Wanderlust Issue